jeanie-wells2When you walk into a building for the first time, you may not notice the way the building is structured and how well you move through it. But if you have ever been lost or felt claustrophobic in a space, you instinctively feel the effects of bad design. The fundamental structures of the building will determine how well you are able to get from point A to point B. This is certainly something retailers and store designers consider in constructing new stores.

The same attention to internal structures and how well people work together is equally important when you are seeking to expand. Excellent human resources and staff development are crucial to co-op maturity. Being able to smoothly transition operations from one phase to the next can mean the difference between gaining double-digit growth or ventures falling flat.

The Need for Organizational Restructuring

Jeanie Wells, operations and project management consultant, noted that co-op leaders often focus their expansion planning energies on either the financing or construction phases, while the internal readiness could be getting short-shrift. If staffing and human resources development is left too late in the process, managers may find that they might have to undo costly mistakes or make reparations for hasty and ill-informed decisions.

“Projects are all-consuming. It’s easy to see how internal issues go to the back burner, but the earlier you start working on internal readiness, the better,” said Wells. She advises allowing the organization enough time to plan for these transitions in a healthy systematic way—ideally 12-24 months prior to opening day in the new location or expanded operations.
Organizational restructuring can be different in every co-op depending on what it needs, but typically involves evaluating the co-op’s existing structural and cultural strengths, building transitional plans for expanded departments, providing tools and training for those who will be taking on more responsibility, and giving more support to human resources, especially regarding internal communication. “You want all your internal systems to align with your plans for growth,” Wells said.

Melanie Reid, human resources consultant, said keeping internal readiness top of mind isn’t the sole job of the general manager, but also starts with a good management team, “Taking organizational leaps involves every key aspect of operations, and having a solid management team in place is often the first step. The next leap has a lot to do with having good systems in place.”

melanie-reid2Conducting a human resources audit is a good place to start in order to know areas for improvement and change before there’s a crisis. “For example, you don’t want to let training or evaluations become a low priority, which can happen during openings or expansions,” Reid said. You want to make sure that each department can handle the new demands on it.
She also said one of the things that can be most precarious during transitions and restructuring is staff morale. “If morale is bad, then it seems like nothing works well. Take the time to have good systems and processes. And don’t forget to communicate.” Reid thinks this is especially imperative for co-ops. “The Co-op Principles motivate everything we do. We don’t want to lose sight of that as our organizations change and mature.”

Transitions to Growth

After evaluating operations, Wells said that it will be much clearer what will be the best option for transition planning. From her perspective, whatever you decide to do begins with communication. Lots of it. “Talk a lot within your organization and in your community about the co-op’s vision and engage people in a dialogue about the future,” she said.

Additionally, the front line staff are often interacting the most with customers and members. They need to be able to communicate to the community about the co-op’s changes in a positive and informed way. “If you haven’t talked about it, and your staff isn’t ready, they don’t have a framework for understanding it.” This can lead to misinformation being conveyed, which can limit the co-op’s effectiveness for getting community support.
Wells said helping people to accept change, even when they agree with it and support it, can be surprisingly challenging. “When you’re doubling sales and staff, this is culturally the toughest thing to manage,” Well said. “Identity change is a big part of your transition planning and that’s huge.” As much as a new building can generate excitement, construction is really at the end of the project, not the beginning. There’s so much foundational work that goes into building a successful project.

Working with an experienced professional can help managers anticipate what needs to be done and by when. Amy Fields, general manager of Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, Minn., turned to Wells to consult on their management structure to transition for growth. When Eastside opened 10 years ago, department managers were stocking their departments, the administrative team collaborated on events and marketing, and they had no front end manager. By 2012, they had reached the limits of that type of structure. “We needed dedicated human resources, finance, and branding, and for our department managers to have enough time to supervise and develop their staff. It was hard for all of us to give up some of the tasks we had been doing for a long time, and hard for me, as general manager, to give up direct supervision of half of the management team,” Fields said.

Wells spent two full days at Eastside, interviewed everyone on the administrative team, and several department managers and staff, sat in on a management team meeting, and met with Fields. “Her analysis of our current situation, and the roadmap she outlined toward a core team environment has provided all of us with a real sense of shared purpose and vision, and has significantly reduced the stress accompanying these changes. The management team, after discussing her analysis, was unanimous in our decision to move to our core team environment,” Fields said.

Building Capacity

One of the great strengths of food co-ops is their willingness to promote and build people up in their careers. But what do you do if the needs of the co-op are greater than the skills you have on staff? Or the trajectory of a given job has eclipsed the skills of the worker? “Sometimes managers will put off making necessary personnel decisions because they are painful to deal with,” Wells said. “As an organization it is important to be able to talk about what the co-op needs and likewise help everyone see what it needs from its people. We need to adjust as we go, and create a healthy and honest culture.” She suggests “doing your homework” and proposing ways for an evolution of the system.

Reid concurs that strong human resources will help create a foundation for a positive work culture that is flexible in the face of change. She emphasizes that being on top of the basics, like having up to date handbooks, job descriptions and evaluations, gives leaders tools for moving things forward as well. Having those things in place gives the organization a foundation that will allow it to move much more smoothly toward an organizational restructuring that benefits everyone.

Reid believes that co-ops offer a unique kind of workplace, one that emphasizes empowerment and education within a business model that grows for a purpose—to make the benefits of social and economic democracy more accessible. “It’s why people come to co-ops and why they stay for 30 years. How many other businesses can say that?”

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